If you Google search “Christian Laettner + Kevin Garnett + Flip Saunders,” a top entry should be a Chicago Tribune story from February 20, 1996. The headline is, “Laettner Aims Tirade at Garnett,” and the text reads as follows:
It was no surprise that Christian Laettner complained after another embarrassing loss by the Minnesota Timberwolves. What was surprising was that popular rookie Kevin Garnett was among Laettner’s targets.
“You’ve got to have the rookies and young kids shut up, and you’ve got to have the coaches and the veterans take care of the team,” Laettner said after Sunday’s loss to Washington. “We’ve got some big britches on this team. We’ve got a lot of people who know everything.”
Garnett, who has moved into the starting lineup one year after playing at Chicago’s Farragut High School, had left the locker room and was unavailable for comment. Coach Flip Saunders acknowledged some of his players might be jealous of Garnett, who has become a fan favorite at Target Center.
“The sad thing is they can say whatever they want, but that kid knows how to play basketball and he’s better than anyone in that locker room,” Saunders said.
Stay on Google and this time search “Timberwolves trade laettner” and “nbatrades.tumblr.com” has a long news story (“Atlanta Hawks Acquire Christian Laettner” that is dated February 22, 1996 — just two days after the Tribune’s about the post-game blow-up. The whole thing is worth reading, as it outlines much of the early-Wolves forward’s issues. But in the pertinent part, it addressed the timing of the trade:
The Wolves started off 2-12 in the Saunders era. The team was still struggling to figure out roles among a large group of young players. The team was 15-36 when they decided to deal Laettner to the Atlanta Hawks. Recently, Laettner had alienated his teammates when he offered veiled criticism towards the organization and Garnett during the season. After a February 18, 1996 loss to the Washington Bullets, Laettner gave his view–in the Chicago Tribune—on how to best manage the Wolves roster:
“You’ve got to have the rookies and young kids shut up, and you’ve got to have the coaches and the veterans take care of the team. We’ve got some big britches on this team. We’ve got a lot of people who know everything.”
While not saying Garnett’s name specifically, it was clear to everyone that the tirade was lobbed in the direction of Minnesota’s prized rookie. The next day, the Timberwolves held a players only meeting where Laettner’s public comments were addressed. Laettner didn’t speak or address his comments during the meeting and that angered his teammates.
Garnett was untouchable, and had seen his playing time gradually increased to the point that he was moved to the starting lineup in January. With Gugliotta, Laettner and Garnett all starting, it was obvious that all three were not meant to play together permanently.
While Laettner’s comments didn’t directly lead to the trade according to the Timberwolves brass, there’s no doubt that the situation had an influence on the trade. Before he was traded, Laettner had appeared in 44 games and posted 18.0 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 2.9 APG, 0.9 SPG and 1.0 BPG in 34.5 MPG.
Some time ago, I was perusing the NYT’s book review section when I learned of a deceased literary critic named Harold Bloom. Some readers might be familiar with him, but I was not. Bloom developed a concept applicable to writing called “the anxiety of influence.” The Times briefly summarized it as “the way poetic genius has been both nurtured and threatened by the genius that preceded it.” Wiki sums it up as: “poets are hindered in their creative process by the ambiguous relationship they necessarily maintain with precursor poets.”
Well, I’m not a poet and NBA basketball isn’t poetry or even literature. Nevertheless, reading about The Anxiety of Influence brought to mind a couple of thing that I find affect my own writing about the Wolves:
First is that it’s a million times harder to write if I’ve already read everybody else’s stuff, and you don’t have much else to add. Major aims are to be both authentic and original. If before you put the virtual pen on paper you already know how you’re failing in originality, it becomes that much more difficult to stay true to your feelings and beliefs.
Like most others seem to, I think the Wolves will win between 35 and 40 games this year. That’s a little above their Vegas over-under, which probably takes into consideration the “will KAT get traded midseason?” variable, along with the franchise’s almost-always-disappointing history. Like most others, I think the starting lineup has 3, maybe 4 locks: D’Lo, Ant, KAT, and probably Jaden. As has been the case since Rosas donated Dario to Phoenix, they don’t have a starting caliber 4 man, and Chris Finch will need to figure that one out. Like most others, I think the team will score points more easily than it will stop opponents from scoring points. Defense will be a challenge. Like most others, I loved the Patrick Beverley pick-up, but otherwise found the offseason uneventful and a little disappointing. At the outset of this season, I don’t have any scorching hot takes or insights that feel particularly unique. Barring a significant injury or a Ben Simmons trade, it feels like most people are on the same page right now when it comes to assessing the current state of the team.
The second dose of influence anxiety stems from the ways in which past Wolves experiences forever shape our perspective of what’s happening in the moment. Before each was fired, Gersson Rosas and Ryan Saunders were continuously compared to their predecessor, Tom Thibodeau. Karl-Anthony Towns and Kevin Love have each been compared to Kevin Garnett. It’ll be Anthony Edwards’s turn next. In his wonderful story about Ant for The Athletic, Jon Krawczynski dabbled in exactly that comp, specifically as it pertained to their mental approach and drive to improve as winning players. The past shapes the present, and for the Timberwolves franchise, that can lead us to some interesting places. That brings me back to the Laettner clips, the history of high-profile Timberwolves duos, and what I expect to steer the direction of the team’s future.
What happens with Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards as teammates?
There are two main angles to this: the basketball one, and the personalities one. For a future to realistically include both Ant and KAT, two things must happen: They’ve gotta win now, and it has to be in a way that satisfies Towns’s ego.
A 38-44 season won’t be good enough. That’ll mean another absence from the playoffs — 6 out of 7 for KAT, and 4 in a row since Jimmy left. It might also mean another All-Star snub, which would be 3 in a row. What’s the magic number for “good enough?” I’m not sure. 45 wins seems like a threshold.
I wrote last year about trading Towns and I wrote recently about Rosas’s primary failure as Wolves POBO: he thought he could blow up the roster he inherited without losing the star player in the #process. When a player of KAT’s stature starts a downward reputational slide as he’s ostensibly entering his prime, the odds of a break-up inch closer and closer to [100 emoji] percent. At this point this seems less controversial than when I first wrote about it: If they don’t win now, it’s over with Towns. When asked about KAT’s potential unhappiness with more losing in his interview with Britt Robson, Finch himself answered, “And if that is the case, then you have talent [to trade with] and you can pivot.”
For any chance of an Ant & KAT Era of Wolves basketball having any lasting memories, they gotta win and they gotta win now. If not, there will be trades and this concept will never get off the ground.
A “cross this bridge when we come to it” issue, no doubt. But whatever, let’s humor ourselves. Let’s say the Wolves are the pleasant surprise of this year’s NBA. The stars align, the offense is top notch, the defense is amazingly average, they win 50 games or even 46.
What exactly does that look like? (Leave Ben Simmons out of this – no cheating.)
History says it would involve KAT spending less energy on scoring and more energy on defense. That’s at least what happened in 2017-18 when Thibs and Jimmy took over, the team won way more than it lost, and KAT made his only All-NBA appearance.
Towns is an offensive-minded and offensively-gifted player who plays the position that’s least important on offense and most important on defense. When they moved on from Thibs, Towns relished the opportunity to explain how much better things were going to be, shackled no longer on offense.
“I think I’ve been held back to 40 percent of my talent…It’s going to be fun to be able to tap into a little more with Ryan Saunders at the helm. I’m going to have a lot of fun being able to play more freely and be able to do things I’ve been doing my whole life that I’ve been held back from doing in the NBA so far.”
That quote aged about as well as “Bahamas was not a joke.” While he did up his scoring under Saunders, it was in a pretty pathetic state of affairs, going 19-45 and 23-49 in the two seasons that followed the “40 percent” line.
Here’s the possible dilemma in all of this. If the Wolves are going to win this season, it will be due to a big leap made by Ant into superstardom, and that is going to involve him running the show on offense and racking up numbers. With Ant carrying the offense, KAT will have more energy available on defense. He will probably spend more time at the top of the key as a floor spacer, which will help him be the first one back in transition. He’ll embrace the central duty of a winning NBA center, protecting the basket and quarterbacking the defense.
Of course in this hopeful hypothetical, Towns would receive all sorts of accolades and praise. If the Wolves win 50 games and he averages a mere 21 or 22 points per game, KAT would be both All-Star and All-NBA, as he was in ’17-18. The comparisons to Jokic and Embiid would begin anew. He’d get that validation.
The history with Thibs and Jimmy, and the available evidence before and after it, just cast a lot of doubt on the idea that Towns knows any of this to be true. His idea of accountability has always been to score the most points and then tell the press that all the blame falls on his shoulders, when nobody (very much including KAT) believes that to be true. At Media Day this year, he more or less bragged about how humble of a leader he is, without any apparent recognition of the irony there. What might one of his role-player teammates of these losing seasons — a Josh Okogie, perhaps — think when listening to the star player explain how he defers all the credit to everybody else and takes all the blame. Yikes.
The personality contrast with Edwards is stark. Both will frequently say silly things, but only one of them is doing it on purpose for its intended effect. If the Wolves win more games and Edwards is doing more and more of the stuff that KAT would like to be doing — scoring — is that a scenario that feels realistic or sustainable, knowing what we know about the personalities involved? Towns has been fawned over by Wolves fans and leadership more than any player since KG. Is he prepared to take a backseat?
I don’t know. I just know that hope is a prerequisite to enjoying this experience, so we should allow ourselves to wonder what winning might look like. I don’t envision anything here that resembles the Laettner Locker Room, but there are reasonable questions to ask about how these unique personalities will or will not mesh.
On Wednesday night against the Rockers, we’ll begin to get our answers.